State of Computing Education in the Commonwealth of Virginia: Guest Blog Post from Rebecca Dovi

December 14, 2017 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Rebecca Dovi of CodeVA contacted me soon after my blog post of last Monday, inspired by Virginia’s new CS Education mandate. The story about the Virginia decision was much more complicated and interesting. I invited her to write a guest blog post, and I’m grateful that she agreed. It’s a fascinating story!

In February 2016 Virginia’s legislature passed House Bill 831 making computer science a part of the core instruction that all students in state must learn. The law mandates specifically “computer science and computational thinking, including computer coding,” be integrated into Virginia’s core standards on coequal standing, in the words of Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent, with English and math. (Bill language http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?161+ful+CHAP0472  )

At CodeVA, core standards had been a “maybe someday” issue on our radar. In terms of strategic planning we were not really considering advocating for core standards until several years out. Then the 2016 legislation cycle started, and with it five separate bills to make computer science count as a foreign language credit.

While standards were not yet something we actively sought, we knew all of these foreign language bills – while well intentioned – were not the means to the end the Virginia Assembly sought to achieve.

Armed with information, CodeVA sought to educate legislators, and in the process was asked instead to propose a substitution. The substitution proposed was the language of HB 831, amending the state’s core education standards enabling legislation. At the insistence of legislators, the bill also originally included a high school mandate and a graduation credit requirement, but CodeVA managed to convince legislators to allow it to use these two items as bargaining chips in negotiations with stakeholders. CodeVA knew these two additional requirements were a bridge too far: previous high school mandates requiring economics and personal finance courses for all high school students still cause issues for many districts around the state already struggling to have enough faculty to teach other subjects.

In the end, all stakeholders involved in the legislation were pleased with the law that was adopted, with acceptance of the final language from advocates representing the state’s superintendents, PTAs, teacher groups, school boards and from some of the state’s most influential school divisions.

Once the governor signed the bill into law, it was up to the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to write standards for the Virginia Board of Education to approve. Virginia has a very prescribed system for developing and maintaining standards. It starts with creating a steering committee of current classroom teachers to act as the primary writing group. Once they have completed drafts multiple review boards give feedback on the standards. The groups weighing in as a part of this formal process include other teachers, educational stakeholders including groups like the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, universities and community colleges and business and industry. Each external review group makes recommendations and the steering committee reviews and responds. Finally all standards go out for open public review, and public meetings are held across the state. The steering committee begin its formal work in March 2017 and the final draft was ready for the VDOE by October 2017.

The final draft went up for a vote by the Board of Education at its November meeting. While the board minutes of this meeting have not yet been posted (as of Dec 11, 2017) you can watch the video here (link: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/boe/meetings/index.shtml# ). CodeVA’s executive director begins his presentation to the board at the 46:30 mark, and the board discussion of the CS standards continue from there.

The mandate for instruction by districts exists for K-8 and means computer science will be integrated into the core subjects students learn in kindergarten through eighth grade. The committee that wrote the standards was very intentional about how these are designed, so there are a few key differences between the Virginia standards and the national standards. First, they are defined for each grade, not by band. Second, in kindergarten and first grade they are written so a teacher may have students coding, or that teacher may choose to guide a lesson with small groups. Third, all non-coding standards were specifically placed so that they aligned with topics currently covered in core areas. Lastly, a sixth strand for cybersecurity was added.

The law also mandates creating standards for middle school and high school electives. These were defined, but the courses are currently optional for schools. CodeVA was intentional in advocating for this tiered approach to Virginia’s mandate: A school division where all students learn computer science concepts early as tools in math, science, language arts and other core subjects, and where parents come to expect quality offerings at the secondary level for their children, and where employers anticipate a CS-literate community, are more likely to ensure those elective offerings exist.

While schools certainly may use our virtual system to offer online high school elective courses, and while Virginia has offered CS through this online instruction platform for over a decade, Virginia’s new CS law includes no mandate to do so. And online instruction options were not in any way a part of the design of the law or of the resulting standards.

The idea is that the integration in K-8 allows students an “informed option” as they move from middle school to high school. By learning computer science early, they have a better idea of what they might want to pursue as an elective. The plan is to measure impact for the next few years, then evaluate the need for high school mandate or graduation requirements. If after data is collected and evaluated it is decided that the mandate needs to be expanded to high school  legislators can certainly go back seeking further requirements. Right now we are asking legislators to hold back from trying to move this process faster. Lawmakers in Virginia have reason for their exuberance for this issue: Virginia has the highest concentration of computer science jobs in the country and with the number of open jobs legislators are under enormous pressure from our business community to act.

Steering away from a high school mandate was a practical choice on two levels. First, we are not near capacity for having enough high school teachers to cover a mandate at that level, the average high school in state would need 4-6 full time computer science teachers to cover a graduation requirement, and an example. CodeVA has trained over 400 middle and high school teachers over the past four years, and this summer will be expanding from one central training to four statewide hubs serving up to 600 teachers. While this moves the state closer towards the goal of having one computer science teacher in each of the state’s 700-plus middle and high schools, that still is enough to meet the demand an immediate high school mandate would create.

Second was the general feeling that it is OK for a student to pursue another field in high school and not want to continue with computer science.This is where measuring the impact of the current initiative becomes vital. We first must explore how exposing all students over several years to ongoing computer science instruction shifts landscape in high school and beyond.

For CodeVA the next step is to continue to work with schools and districts to incorporate computer science in daily instruction. Expanding access to professional development by establishing three new hubs across the state is an important first step. These hubs will continue to run the middle and high school training cohorts we have lead since 2014 and add the new Elementary Coaches Academy we are currently piloting. In addition, to support the K-8 mandate we will be working with teams of teachers to create classroom curriculum that reflects the new standards. Finally, CodeVA is launching a pilot of a Computer Science Roadmap project that helps districts collect the information they need to plan the infrastructure needed for implementation.

While two years ago we did not anticipate needing to build a statewide infrastructure to support the implementation of standards Virginia hopes that the lessons learned through this process can inform other states as they move to truly bring computer science to all of their students.

 

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Resources for dealing with the Undergraduate CS Capacity Crisis: Guest Post from Eric Roberts Require CS at University in order to Get CS into K-12 (Revisited)

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